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The Gossips Awake

From: The Forester's Daughter

It was dark when they reached the village, but Wayland declared his
ability to go on, although his wounded head was throbbing with fever and
he was clinging to the pommel of his saddle; so Berrie rode on.

Mrs. McFarlane, hearing the horses on the bridge, was at the door and
received her daughter with wondering question, while the stable-hands,
quick to detect an injured man, hurried to lift Norcross down from his

"What's the matter?" repeated Mrs. McFarlane.

"He fell and struck his head on a stone," Berea hastily explained. "Take
the horses, boys, mother and I will look out for Mr. Norcross."

The men obeyed her and fell back, but they were consumed with curiosity,
and their glances irritated the girl. "Slip the packs at once," she

With instant sympathy her mother came to her aid in supporting the
wounded, weary youth indoors, and as he stretched out on the couch in the
sitting-room, he remarked, with a faint, ironic smile: "This beats any
bed of balsam boughs."

"Where's your father?" asked Mrs. McFarlane of her daughter.

"He's over on the Ptarmigan. I've a powerful lot to tell you, mother; but
not now; we must look after Wayland. He's nearly done up, and so am I."

Mrs. McFarlane winced a little at her daughter's use of Norcross's first
name, but she said nothing further at the moment, although she watched
Berrie closely while she took off Wayland's shoes and stockings and
rubbed his icy feet. "Get him something hot as quick as you can!" she
commanded; and Mrs. McFarlane obeyed without a word.

Gradually the tremor passed out of his limbs and a delicious sense of
warmth, of safety, stole over him, and he closed his eyes in the comfort
of her presence and care. "Rigorous business this life of the pioneer,"
he said, with mocking inflection. "I think I prefer a place in the lumber

"Don't talk," she said. Then, with a rush of tender remorse: "Why didn't
you tell me to stop? I didn't realize that you were so tired. We could
have stopped at the Springs."

"I didn't know how tired I was till I got here. Gee," he said, boyishly,
"that door-knob at the back of my head is red-hot! You're good to me," he
added, humbly.

She hated to have him resume that tone of self-depreciation, and,
kneeling to him, she kissed his cheek, and laid her head beside his.
"You're splendid," she insisted. "Nobody could be braver; but you should
have told me you were exhausted. You fooled me with your cheerful

He accepted her loving praise, her clasping arms, as a part of the rescue
from the darkness and pain of the long ride, careless of what it might
bring to him in the future. He ate his toast and drank his coffee, and
permitted the women to lead him to his room, and then being alone he
crept into his bed and fell instantly asleep.

Berrie and her mother went back to the sitting-room, and Mrs. McFarlane
closed the door behind them. "Now tell me all about it," she said, in the
tone of one not to be denied.

The story went along very smoothly till the girl came to the second night
in camp beside the lake; there her voice faltered, and the reflective
look in the mother's eyes deepened as she learned that her daughter had
shared her tent with the young man. "It was the only thing to do,
mother," Berrie bravely said. "It was cold and wet outside, and you know
he isn't very strong, and his teeth were chattering, he was so chilled. I
know it sounds strange down here; but up there in the woods in the storm
what I did seemed right and natural. You know what I mean, don't you?"

"Yes, I understand. I don't blame you--only--if others should hear of

"But they won't. No one knows of our being alone there except Tony and

"Are you sure? Doesn't Mrs. Belden know?"

"I don't think so--not yet."

Mrs. McFarlane's nervousness grew. "I wish you hadn't gone on this trip.
If the Beldens find out you were alone with Mr. Norcross they'll make
much of it. It will give them a chance at your father." Her mind turned
upon another point. "When did Mr. Norcross get his fall?"

"On the way back." Here Berrie hesitated again. "I don't like to tell
you, mother, but he didn't fall, Cliff jumped him and tried to kill

The mother doubted her ears. "Cliff did? How did he happen to meet you?"

Berrie was quick to answer. "I don't know how he found out we were on the
trail. I suppose the old lady 'phoned him. Anyhow, while we were camped
for noon yesterday"--her face flamed again at thought of that tender,
beautiful moment when they were resting on the grass--"while we were at
our lunch he came tearing down the hill on that big bay horse of his and
took a flying jump at Wayland. As Wayland went down he struck his head on
a stone. I thought he was dead, and I was paralyzed for a second. Then I
flew at Cliff and just about choked the life out of him. I'd have ended
him right there if he hadn't let go."

Mrs. McFarlane, looking upon her daughter in amazement, saw on her face
the shadow of the deadly rage which had burned in her heart as she
clenched young Belden's throat.

"What then? What happened then?"

"He let go, you bet." Her smile came back. "And when he realized what
he'd done--he thought Wayland was dead--he began to weaken. Then I took
my gun and was all for putting an end to him right there, when I saw
Wayland's eyelids move. After that I didn't care what became of Cliff. I
told him to ride on and keep a-ridin', and I reckon he's clear out of the
state by this time. If he ever shows up I'll put him where he'll have all
night to be sorry in."

"When did this take place?"

"Yesterday about two. Of course Wayland couldn't ride, he was so dizzy
and kind o' confused, and so I went into camp right there at timber-line.
Along about sunset Nash came riding up from this side, and insisted on
staying to help me--so I let him."

Mrs. McFarlane's tense attitude relaxed. "Nash is not the kind that
tattles. I'm glad he turned up."

"And this morning I saddled and came down."

"Did Nash go on?"

"Yes, daddy was waiting for him, so I sent him along."

"It's all sad business," groaned Mrs. McFarlane, "and I can see you're
keeping something back. How did Cliff happen to know just where you were?
And what started you back without your father?"

For the first time Berrie showed signs of weakness and distress. "Why,
you see, Alec Belden and Mr. Moore were over there to look at some
timber, and old Marm Belden and that Moore girl went along. I suppose
they sent word to Cliff, and I presume that Moore girl put him on our
trail. Leastwise that's the way I figure it out. That's the worst of the
whole business." She admitted this with darkened brow. "Mrs. Belden's
tongue is hung in the middle and loose at both ends--and that Moore girl
is spiteful mean." She could not keep the contempt out of her voice. "She
saw us start off, and she is sure to follow it up and find out what
happened on the way home; even if they don't see Cliff they'll talk."

"Oh, I wish you hadn't gone!" exclaimed the worried mother.

"It can't be helped now, and it hasn't done me any real harm. It's all in
the day's work, anyhow. I've always gone with daddy before, and this trip
isn't going to spoil me. The boys all know me, and they will treat me

"Yes, but Mr. Norcross is an outsider--a city man. They will all think
evil of him on that account."

"I know; that's what troubles me. No one will know how fine and
considerate he was. Mother, I've never known any one like him. He's a
poet! He's taught me to see things I never saw before. Everything
interests him--the birds, the clouds, the voices in the fire. I never was
so happy in my life as I was during those first two days, and that night
in camp before he began to worry--it was just wonderful." Words failed
her, but her shining face and the forward straining pose of her body
enlightened the mother. "I don't care what people say of me if only they
will be just to him. They've got to treat him right," she added,

"Did he speak to you--are you engaged?"

Her head drooped. "Not really engaged, mother; but he told me how much he
liked me--and--it's all right, mother, I know it is. I'm not fine
enough for him, but I'm going to try to change my ways so he won't be
ashamed of me."

Mrs. McFarlane's face cleared. "He surely is a fine young fellow, and can
be trusted to do the right thing. Well, we might as well go to bed. We
can't settle anything till your father gets home," she said.

Wayland rose next morning free from dizziness and almost free from pain,
and when he came out of his room his expression was cheerful. "I feel as
if I'd slept a week, and I'm hungry. I don't know why I should be, but I

Mrs. McFarlane met him with something very intimate, something almost
maternal in her look; but her words were as few and as restrained as
ever. He divined that she had been talking with Berrie, and that a fairly
clear understanding of the situation had been reached. That this
understanding involved him closely he was aware; but nothing in his
manner acknowledged it.

She did not ask any questions, believing that sooner or later the whole
story must come out. The fact that Siona Moore and Mrs. Belden knew that
Berrie had started back on Thursday with young Norcross made it easy for
the villagers to discover that she had not reached the ranch till
Saturday. "What could Joe have been thinking of to allow them to go?" she
said. "Mr. Nash's presence in the camp must be made known; but then there
is Clifford's assault upon Mr. Norcross, can that be kept secret, too?"
And so while the young people chatted, the troubled mother waited in
fear, knowing that in a day or two the countryside would be aflame with

In a landscape like this, as she well knew, nothing moves unobserved. The
native--man or woman--is able to perceive and name objects scarcely
discernible to the eye of the alien. A minute speck is discovered on the
hillside. "Hello, there's Jim Sanders on his roan," says one, or "Here
comes Kit Jenkins with her flea-bit gray. I wonder who's on the bay
alongside of her," remarks another, and each of these observations is
taken quite as a matter of course. With a wide and empty field of vision,
and with trained, unspoiled optic nerves, the plainsman is marvelously
penetrating of glance. Hence, Mrs. McFarlane was perfectly certain that
not one but several of her neighbors had seen and recognized Berrie and
young Norcross as they came down the hill. In a day or two every man
would know just where they camped, and what had taken place in camp. Mrs.
Belden would not rest till she had ferreted out every crook and turn of
that trail, and her speech was quite as coarse as that of any of her male

Easy-going with regard to many things, these citizens were abnormally
alive to all matters relating to courtship, and popular as she believed
Berrie to be, Mrs. McFarlane could not hope that her daughter would be
spared--especially by the Beldens, who would naturally feel that Clifford
had been cheated. She sighed deeply. "Well, nothing can be done till Joe
returns," she repeated.

A long day's rest, a second night's sleep, set Wayland on his feet. He
came to breakfast quite gay. "Barring the hickory-nut on the back of my
head," he explained, "I'm feeling fine, almost ready for another
expedition. I may make a ranger yet."

Berrie, though equally gay, was not so sure of his ability to return to
work. "I reckon you'd better go easy till daddy gets back; but if you
feel like it we'll ride up to the post-office this afternoon."

"I want to start right in to learn to throw that hitch, and I'm going to
practise with an ax till I can strike twice in the same place. This trip
was an eye-opener. Great man I'd be in a windfall--wouldn't I?"

He was persuaded to remain very quiet for another day, and part of it was
spent in conversation with Mrs. McFarlane--whom he liked very much--and
an hour or more in writing a long letter wherein he announced to his
father his intention of going into the Forest Service. "I've got to build
up a constitution," he said, "and I don't know of a better place to do it
in. Besides, I'm beginning to be interested in the scheme. I like the
Supervisor. I'm living in his house at the present time, and I'm feeling
contented and happy, so don't worry about me."

He was indeed quite comfortable, save when he realized that Mrs.
McFarlane was taking altogether too much for granted in their
relationship. It was delightful to be so watched over, so waited upon, so
instructed. "But where is it all leading me?" he continued to ask
himself--and still that wall of reserve troubled and saddened Berrie.

They expected McFarlane that night, and waited supper for him, but he did
not come, and so they ate without him, and afterward Wayland helped
Berrie do up the dishes while the mother bent above her sewing by the
kitchen lamp.

There was something very sweet and gentle about Mrs. McFarlane, and the
exile took almost as much pleasure in talking with her as with her
daughter. He led her to tell of her early experiences in the valley, and
of the strange types of men and women with whom she had crossed the

"Some of them are here yet," she said. "In fact the most violent of all
the opponents to the Service are these old adventurers. I don't think
they deserve to be called pioneers. They never did any work in clearing
the land or in building homes. Some of them, who own big herds of cattle,
still live in dug-outs. They raged at Mr. McFarlane for going into the
Service--called him a traitor. Old Jake Proudfoot was especially

"You should see where old Jake lives," interrupted Berrie. "He sleeps on
the floor in one corner of his cabin, and never changes his shirt."

"Hush!" warned Mrs. McFarlane.

"That's what the men all say. Daddy declares if they were to scrape Jake
they'd find at least five layers of shirts. His wife left him fifteen
years ago, couldn't stand his habits, and he's got worse ever since.
Naturally he is opposed to the Service."

"Of course," her mother explained, "those who oppose the Supervisor
aren't all like Jake; but it makes me angry to have the papers all
quoting Jake as 'one of the leading ranchers of the valley.'"

She could not bring herself to take up the most vital subject of all--the
question of her daughter's future. "I'll wait till father gets home," she

On the fourth morning the 'phone rang, and the squawking voice of Mrs.
Belden came over the wire. "I wanted to know if Berrie and her feller got
home all right?"

"Yes, they arrived safely."

The old woman chuckled. "Last I see of Cliff he was hot on their
trail--looked like he expected to take a hand in that expedition. Did he
overtake 'em?"

"I don't hear very well--where are you?"

"I'm at the Scott ranch--we're coming round 'the horn' to-day."

"Where is the Supervisor?"

"He headed across yesterday. Say, Cliff was mad as a hornet when he
started. I'd like to know what happened--"

Mrs. McFarlane hung up the receiver. The old woman's nasty chuckle was
intolerable; but in silencing the 'phone Mrs. McFarlane was perfectly
aware that she was not silencing the gossip; on the contrary, she was
certain that the Beldens would leave a trail of poisonous comment from
the Ptarmigan to Bear Tooth. It was all sweet material for them.

Berrie wanted to know who was speaking, and Mrs. McFarlane replied: "Mrs.
Belden wanted to know if you got through all right."

"She said something else, something to heat you up," persisted the girl,
who perceived her mother's agitation. "What did she say--something about
me--and Cliff?"

The mother did not answer, for Wayland entered the room at the moment;
but Berrie knew that traducers were already busy with her affairs. "I
don't care anything about old lady Belden," she said, later; "but I hate
to have that Moore girl telling lies about me."

As for Wayland, the nights in the camp by the lake, and, indeed, all the
experiences of his trip in the high places were becoming each moment more
remote, more unreal. Camp life at timber-line did not seem to him subject
to ordinary conventional laws of human conduct, and the fact that he and
Berrie had shared the same tent under the stress of cold and snow, now
seemed so far away as to be only a complication in a splendid mountain
drama. Surely no blame could attach to the frank and generous girl, even
though the jealous assault of Cliff Belden should throw the valley into a
fever of chatter. "Furthermore, I don't believe he will be in haste to
speak of his share in the play," he added. "It was too nearly criminal."

It was almost noon of the fourth day when the Supervisor called up to say
that he was at the office, and would reach the ranch at six o'clock.

"I wish you would come home at once," his wife argued; and something in
her voice convinced him that he was more needed at home, than in the

"All right, mother. Hold the fort an hour and I'll be there."

Mrs. McFarlane met him at the hitching-bar, and it required but a glance
for him to read in her face a troubled state of mind.

"This has been a disastrous trip for Berrie," she said, after one of the
hands had relieved the Supervisor of his horse.

"In what way?"

She was a bit impatient. "Mrs. Belden is filling the valley with the
story of Berrie's stay in camp with Mr. Norcross."

His face showed a graver line. "It couldn't be helped. The horses had to
be followed, and that youngster couldn't do it--and, besides, I expected
to get back that night. Nobody but an old snoop like Seth Belden would
think evil of our girl. And, besides, Norcross is a man to be trusted."

"Of course he is, but the Beldens are ready to think evil of any one
connected with us. And Cliff's assault on Wayland--"

He looked up quickly. "Assault? Did he make trouble?"

"Yes, he overtook them on the trail, and would have killed Norcross if
Berrie hadn't interfered. He was crazy with jealousy."

"Nash didn't say anything about any assault."

"He didn't know it. Berrie told him that Norcross fell from his horse."

McFarlane was deeply stirred. "I saw Cliff leave camp, but I didn't think
anything of it. Why should he jump Norcross?"

"I suppose Mrs. Belden filled him with distrust of Berrie. He was already
jealous, and when he came up with them and found them lunching together,
he lost his head and rushed at Wayland like a wild beast. Of course he
couldn't stand against a big man like Cliff, and his head struck on a
stone; and if Berrie hadn't throttled the brute he would have murdered
the poor boy right there before her eyes."

"Good God! I never suspected a word of this. I didn't think he'd do

The Supervisor was now very grave. These domestic matters at once threw
his work as forester into the region of vague and unimportant
abstractions. He began to understand the danger into which Berea had
fallen, and step by step he took up the trails which had brought them all
to this pass.

He fixed another penetrating look upon her face, and his voice was vibrant
with anxiety as he said: "You don't think there's anything--wrong?"

"No, nothing wrong; but she's profoundly in love with him. I never have
seen her so wrapped up in any one. She thinks of nothing else. It scares
me to see it, for I've studied him closely and I can't believe he feels
the same toward her. His world is so different from ours. I don't know
what to do or say. I fear she is in for a period of great unhappiness."

She was at the beginning of tears, and he sought to comfort her. "Don't
worry, honey, she's got too much horse sense to do anything foolish.
She's grown up. I suppose it's his being so different from the other boys
that catches her. We've always been good chums--let me talk with her. She
mustn't make a mistake."

The return of the crew from the corral cut short this conference, and
when McFarlane went in Berrie greeted him with such frank and joyous
expression that all his fears vanished.

"Did you come over the high trail?" she asked.

"No, I came your way. I didn't want to take any chances on getting mired.
It's still raining up there," he answered, then turned to Wayland:
"Here's your mail, Norcross, a whole hatful of it--and one telegram in
the bunch. Hope it isn't serious."

Wayland took the bundle of letters and retired to his room, glad to
escape the persistent stare of the cow-hands. The despatch was from his
father, and was curt and specific as a command: "Shall be in Denver on
the 23d, meet me at the Palmer House. Am on my way to California. Come
prepared to join me on the trip."

With the letters unopened in his lap he sat in silent thought, profoundly
troubled by the instant decision which this message demanded of him. At
first glance nothing was simpler than to pack up and go. He was only a
tourist in the valley with no intention of staying; but there was Berea!
To go meant a violent end of their pleasant romance. To think of flight
saddened him, and yet his better judgment was clearly on the side of
going. "Much as I like her, much as I admire her, I cannot marry her. The
simplest way is to frankly tell her so and go. It seems cowardly, but in
the end she will be happier."

His letters carried him back into his own world. One was from Will
Halliday, who was going with Professor Holsman on an exploring trip up
the Nile. "You must join us. Holsman has promised to take you on."
Another classmate wrote to know if he did not want to go into a land deal
on the Gulf of Mexico. A girl asked: "Are you to be in New York this
winter? I am. I've decided to go into this Suffrage Movement." And so,
one by one, the threads which bound him to Eastern city life re-spun
their filaments. After all, this Colorado outing, even though it should
last two years, would only be a vacation--his real life was in the cities
of the East. Charming as Berea was, potent as she seemed, she was after
all a fixed part of the mountain land, and not to be taken from it. At
the moment marriage with her appeared absurd.

A knock at his door and the Supervisor's voice gave him a keen shock.
"Come in," he called, springing to his feet with a thrill of dread, of

McFarlane entered slowly and shut the door behind him. His manner was
serious, and his voice gravely gentle as he said: "I hope that telegram
does not call you away?"

"It is from my father, asking me to meet him in Denver," answered
Norcross, with faltering breath. "He's on his way to California. Won't
you sit down?"

The older man took a seat with quiet dignity. "Seems like a mighty fine
chance, don't it? I've always wanted to see the Coast. When do you plan
for to pull out?"

Wayland was not deceived by the Supervisor's casual tone; there was
something ominously calm in his manner, something which expressed an
almost dangerous interest in the subject.

"I haven't decided to go at all. I'm still dazed by the suddenness of it.
I didn't know my father was planning this trip."

"I see. Well, before you decide to go I'd like to have a little talk with
you. My daughter has told me part of what happened to you on the trail. I
want to know all of it. You're young, but you've been out in the world,
and you know what people can say about you and my girl." His voice became
level and menacing, as he added: "And I don't intend to have her put in
wrong on account of you."

Norcross was quick to reply. "Nobody will dare accuse her of wrongdoing.
She's a noble girl. No one will dare to criticize her for what she could
not prevent."

"You don't know the Beldens. My girl's character will be on trial in
every house in the county to-morrow. The Belden side of it will appear in
the city papers. Sympathy will be with Clifford. Berrie will be made an
issue by my enemies. They'll get me through her."

"Good Lord!" exclaimed Norcross, in sudden realization of the gravity of
the case. "What beasts they are!"

"Moore's gang will seize upon it and work it hard," McFarlane went on,
with calm insistence. "They want to bring the district forester down on
me. This is a fine chance to badger me. They will make a great deal of my
putting you on the roll. Our little camping trip is likely to prove a
serious matter to us all."

"Surely you don't consider me at fault?"

Worried as he was, the father was just. "No, you're not to blame--no one
is to blame. It all dates back to the horses quitting camp; but you've
got to stand pat now--for Berrie's sake."

"But what can I do? I'm at your service. What role shall I play? Tell me
what to do, and I will do it."

McFarlane was staggered, but he answered: "You can at least stay on the
ground and help fight. This is no time to stampede."

"You're right. I'll stay, and I'll make any statement you see fit. I'll
do anything that will protect Berrie."

McFarlane again looked him squarely in the eyes. "Is there a--an
agreement between you?"

"Nothing formal--that is--I mean I admire her, and I told her--" He
stopped, feeling himself on the verge of the irrevocable. "She's a
splendid girl," he went on. "I like her exceedingly, but I've known her
only a few weeks."

McFarlane interrupted. "Girls are flighty critters," he said, sadly. "I
don't know why she's taken to you so terrible strong; but she has. She
don't seem to care what people say so long as they do not blame you; but
if you should pull out you might just as well cut her heart to pieces--"
His voice broke, and it was a long time before he could finish. "You're
not at fault, I know that, but if you can stay on a little while and
make it an ounce or two easier for her and for her mother, I wish you'd
do it."

Wayland extended his hand impulsively. "Of course I'll stay. I never
really thought of leaving." In the grip of McFarlane's hand was something
warm and tender.

He rose. "I'm terribly obliged," he said; "but we mustn't let her suspect
for a minute that we've been discussing her. She hates being pitied or

"She shall not experience a moment's uneasiness that I can prevent,"
replied the youth; and at the moment he meant it.

Berrie could not be entirely deceived. She read in her father's face a
subtle change of line which she related to something Wayland had said.
"Did he tell you what was in the telegram? Has he got to go away?" she
asked, anxiously.

"Yes, he said it was from his father."

"What does his father want of him?"

"He's on his way to California and wants Wayland to go with him; but
Wayland says he's not going."

A pang shot through Berrie's heart. "He mustn't go--he isn't able to go,"
she exclaimed, and her pain, her fear, came out in her sharpened,
constricted tone. "I won't let him go--till he's well."

Mrs. McFarlane gently interposed. "He'll have to go, honey, if his father
needs him."

"Let his father come here." She rose, and, going to his door, decisively
knocked. "May I come in?" she demanded, rather than asked, before her
mother could protest. "I must see you."

Wayland opened the door, and she entered, leaving her parents facing each
other in mute helplessness.

Mrs. McFarlane turned toward her husband with a face of despair. "She's
ours no longer, Joe. Our time of bereavement has come."

He took her in his arms. "There, there, mother. Don't cry. It can't be
helped. You cut loose from your parents and came to me in just the same
way. Our daughter's a grown woman, and must have her own life. All we can
do is to defend her against the coyotes who are busy with her name."

"But what of him, Joe; he don't care for her as she does for him--can't
you see that?"

"He'll do the right thing, mother; he told me he would. He knows how much
depends on his staying here now, and he intends to do it."

"But in the end, Joe, after this scandal is lived down, can he--will
he--marry her? And if he marries her can they live together and be happy?
His way of life is so different. He can't content himself here, and she
can't fit in where he belongs. It all seems hopeless to me. Wouldn't it
be better for her to suffer for a little while now than to make a mistake
that may last a lifetime?"

"Mebbe it would, mother, but the decision is not ours. She's too strong
for us to control. She's of age, and if she comes to a full understanding
of the situation, she can decide the question a whole lot better than
either of us."

"That's true," she sighed. "In some ways she's bigger and stronger than
both of us. Sometimes I wish she were not so self-reliant."

"Well, that's the way life is, sometimes, and I reckon there's nothin'
left for you an' me but to draw closer together and try to fill up the
empty place she's going to leave between us."

Next: The Summons

Previous: Berrie's Vigil

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